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The long shadow of school closures

Updated: Oct 30, 2023


During the early months of the Covid pandemic, Randi Weingarten and the teachers’ union she leads faced a vexing question: When should schools reopen?

For years, advocates of public education like Weingarten had argued that schools played an irreplaceable role. School was where children learned academic and social skills. It was where low-income children received subsidized meals. Without public schools, their defenders argued, society would come apart.

On the other side of the ledger, however, was the worst pandemic in a century. Teachers and parents feared that reopening schools before vaccines were available would spark Covid outbreaks, illness and death.

In 2020, the pandemic’s first full year, Weingarten came down strongly on the side of keeping schools closed. Safety measures were not enough to reopen them, she argued. Instead, Covid became an opportunity for her union, the American Federation of Teachers, to push for broader policy changes that it had long favored. As my colleague Jonathan Mahler writes in a new story in the Times Magazine:

The A.F.T. had issued its own reopening plan in late April calling for adequate personal protective equipment, new cleaning and sanitization regimens in school buildings, a temporary suspension of formal teacher performance evaluations, a limit on student testing, a cancellation of student-loan debt and a $750 billion federal aid package to help schools prepare to reopen safely and facilitate ‘‘a real recovery for all our communities.’’

In retrospect, the strategy seems to have failed.

Today’s newsletter, like Jonathan’s story, looks at the lingering costs to public education.

A lost year

Many other education leaders took a different approach in 2020 and came to favor a faster reopening of schools. In Europe, many were open by the middle of the year. In the U.S., private schools, including Catholic schools, which often have modest resources, reopened. In conservative parts of the U.S., public schools also reopened, at times in consultation with local teachers’ unions.

Some people did contract Covid at these schools, but the overall effect on the virus’s spread was close to zero. U.S. communities with closed schools had similar levels of Covid as communities with open schools, be they in the U.S. or Europe. How could that be? By the middle of 2020, there were many other ways for Covid to spread — in supermarkets, bars, restaurants and workplaces, as well as homes where out-of-school children gathered with friends.

Despite the emerging data that schools were not superspreaders, many U.S. districts remained closed well into 2021, even after vaccines were available. About half of American children lost at least a year of full-time school, according to Michael Hartney of Boston College.

And children suffered as a result.

They lost ground in reading, math and other subjects. The effects were worst on low-income, Black and Latino children. Depression increased, and the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a national emergency in children’s mental health. Shamik Dasgupta, a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, who became an advocate for reopening schools, called the closures “a moral catastrophe.”

The closures also caused some Americans to sour on public schools. Nationwide enrollment fell by 1.3 million, or 3 percent, according to the latest federal data. The share of U.S. adults with little or no trust in public schools rose by a few percentage points, to 33 percent, according to Gallup. In last year’s elections, political candidates who supported vouchers — which effectively reduce public-school funding — fared well, as Jonathan explains in his story.

“It’s pretty undeniable that the last few years have been bad for public schools — even very bad,” he told me.

A democratic failure

I recommend his story because it’s a nuanced look at Weingarten and the challenges she now faces. Republican officials have spent years trying to demonize teachers’ unions, and Weingarten in particular (including during a House hearing this week), and have been less successful than they hoped. In Michigan, where Weingarten campaigned for Democrats last year, as she frequently does, the party won a sweep of major offices. In Chicago (an overwhelmingly Democratic city), a former teachers’ union organizer, Brandon Johnson, was elected mayor this month.

These results reflect the fact that many Americans are sympathetic to teachers and grateful to their children’s own teachers. Teachers do vital work and don’t make big salaries. Many spend their own money on teaching materials when schools don’t do so.

In the case of Covid, the risks associated with reopening schools were unclear in the spring of 2020, and teachers were understandably frightened. Over the course of the summer, however, evidence increasingly suggested that schools could reopen without accelerating the spread of Covid — and that the costs of keeping them closed were steep. Despite this evidence, many schools remained closed for months on end, even after vaccines became available.

Dasgupta, the Berkeley philosopher, has a thoughtful way of framing this failure. As he wrote to me in an email:

It is clear that extended school closures were a mistake — they harmed children while having no measurable effect on the pandemic. It is also clear that teachers’ unions were a major factor behind the closures. But remember that the unions were just doing their job. Their remit is to advocate for their members and that is exactly what they did. Seen like this, the problem was not the teachers’ union per se — I am personally in favor of public sector unions — but the absence of a comparable organization at the bargaining table to represent the interests of students and their caregivers. It was a failure of democratic decision-making.

Looking ahead, my colleague Jonathan puts it this way:

The question (and political debate) is where do we go from here — double down on public education, try to address the learning loss and emotional damage caused by the pandemic closures and make an effort to restore the nation’s confidence in public schools, or create more alternatives via school choice?

As Jonathan notes, public education is likely to be a major issue again in the 2024 campaigns.



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